School of Historical Studies
By Angelos Chaniotis
The study of cinematic representations of ancient history is one of the most rapidly rising fields of classical scholarship. As an important part of the modern reception of classical antiquity, movies inspired by Greek and Roman myth and history are discussed in academic courses, conferences, textbooks, handbooks, and doctoral theses. Such discussions involve more than a quest for mistakes—a sometimes quite entertaining enterprise. They confront classicists and ancient historians with profound questions concerning their profession: What part does the remote past play in our lives? How do modern treatments of the past reflect contemporary questions and anxieties? How is memory of the past continually constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed?
My father worked in the movie industry in the 1950s and 60s as a producer and leaseholder of one of Greece’s largest movie theaters. This may have been the impetus for me to become a cinephile. However, my fascination with the representation of history on the big screen is part of my interest in how memory is shaped. Many Members of the School of Historical Studies, past and present, share this interest. Adele Reinhartz (Member, 2011–12) is the author of Scripture on the Silver Screen (Westminster John Knox Press, 2003) and Jesus of Hollywood (Oxford University Press, 2007); among current Members, the archaeologist Yannis Hamilakis studies the place of the past in modern Mediterranean societies and their media; the ancient historian Nathanael Andrade incorporates movies into undergraduate teaching; and the historian of Latin America Jeff Gould directs historical documentaries.
By Michael van Walt van Praag
Human beings have waged war or engaged in violent conflict with each other since ancient times, an observation that prompted a Member at the Institute to suggest in the course of a casual conversation that surely it was a waste of time and resources to try to prevent or resolve armed conflicts, since there will always be others.
War, by any name,* does indeed seem to be a permanent feature of human society, as is disease for that matter. We do not consider the efforts of physicians to cure patients or the research that goes into finding cures for illnesses a waste of time, despite this. Both phenomena, armed conflict and disease, change over time as circumstances change and as human beings develop ways to prevent or cure some kinds of ills. A doctor treats a patient for that patient’s sake without necessarily having an impact on the propensity of others to fall ill. Mediators and facilitators seek to help resolve conflicts to bring an end to the suffering of those caught in their violence and destruction. Researchers in both fields hope to contribute in a broader and perhaps more fundamental way to understanding and addressing causes of these human ills and to finding new or improved remedies for them.
By Brandon C. Look
If the eighteenth century is to be seen as the “Age of Reason,” then one of the crucial stories to be told is of the trajectory of philosophy from one of the most ardent proponents of the powers of human reason, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716), to the philosopher who subjected the claims of reason to their most serious critique, Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). Not only is the story of Kant’s Auseinandersetzung with Leibniz important historically, it is also important philosophically, for it has implications about the nature and possibility of metaphysics, that branch of philosophy concerned with fundamental questions such as what there is, why there is anything at all, how existing things are causally connected, and how the mind latches onto the world. Like many philosophical debates, however, it is also prone to a kind of “eternal recurrence” to those who are ignorant of it.
Leibniz was a “rationalist” philosopher; that is, he was committed to two theses: (i) he believed that the mind has certain innate ideas—it is not, as John Locke and his fellow empiricists say, a tabula rasa or blank slate; and (ii) he believed in—and, in fact, made explicit—the “principle of sufficient reason,” according to which “there is nothing for which there is not a reason why it is so and not otherwise.” This principle had enormous metaphysical consequences for Leibniz, for it allowed him to argue that the world, as a series of contingent things, could not have the reason for its existence within it; rather there must be an extramundane reason—God. Further, as a response to the mind-body problem, Leibniz advanced the theory of “pre-established harmony,” according to which there is no interaction at all between substances; the mind proceeds and “unfolds” according to its own laws, and the body moves according to its own laws, but they do so in perfect harmony, as is fitting for something designed and created by God. Strictly speaking, however, Leibniz was not a dualist; he did not believe that there were minds and bodies—at least not in the same sense and at the most fundamental level of reality. Rather, in his mature metaphysical view, there are only simple substances, or monads, mind-like beings endowed with forces that ground all phenomena. Finally, according to Leibniz, since these simple substances are ontologically primary and ground the phenomena of matter and motion, space and time are merely the ordered relations derivative of the corporeal phenomena. Leibniz contrasted his view with that of Isaac Newton, according to whom there is a sense in which space and time can be considered absolute and space can be considered something substantial.
By Israel Gershoni
“Freedom is the ultimate virtue of mankind”; “Democracy is the only political system of modern man and modern society”; “Therefore, Egypt must be committed to freedom and democracy.” These are the words of ‘Abbas Mahmud al-‘Aqqad in his book Hitlar fi al-Mizan (Hitler in the Balance), which aroused sharp public interest in Egypt and the Arab world when it was published in Cairo in early June 1940. The book was written when Hitler was at the height of his military successes, and it was widely assumed that nothing would thwart his advances. ‘Aqqad’s book leveled a harsh attack on Hitler and Nazism. Through his analysis of Hitler’s complex and deranged personality, ‘Aqqad deconstructed Nazi racism, dictatorship, and imperialism. He portrayed Hitler and Nazism as the ultimate danger not only for freedom and democracy, but also for modernity, the very existence of modern man and enlightened culture. In ‘Aqqad’s view, the merits of a liberal democracy were rooted in: individual freedoms and civil liberties, constitutionalism, a parliamentary and multiparty system, the separation of powers, equality for all citizens, cultural pluralism, and the unquestionable legitimacy of political opposition.
When ‘Aqqad (1889–1964) expressed these views in the early years of the Second World War, his liberal democratic worldview had fully coalesced. Already in his early fifties, he was an established and well-known intellectual active for more than three decades. In hundreds of articles published in the Egyptian press, and particularly in his book The Absolute Rule of the 20th Century (al-Hukm al-Mutlaq fi al-Qarn al-‘Ishrin), published in 1929, ‘Aqqad reaffirmed his commitment to democracy and his rejection of any form of absolutism, oligarchy, aristocracy, and autocratic monarchial rule, and in particular Fascism, Nazism, and, in a different way, Communism. As a representative of the Wafd party in the Egyptian parliament, and later as the intellectual leader of the Sa‘adist Party and its representative in the Chamber of Deputies, ‘Aqqad was one of the most consistently democratic activists in Egyptian politics and culture.
By Christopher S. Wood
Religious art of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance in Europe was marked by the creeping presence of the prosaic, the concrete, the familiar, the everyday. Vivid descriptions of furniture and clothes, local flora and landscapes, hometown buildings and skylines, vignettes of laboring and sporting peasants threatened to distract the devout beholder from the sacred narrative. The purpose of the painting, after all, was to train the mind on the episodes of the lives of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints. A dramatic instance of this profanation of the cult image was the embedded portrait, the topic of my research at the IAS in fall 2011.
The embedded portrait is the image of a real, modern person, usually the donor or person who paid for the painting, introduced into the narrative. The donor has him- or herself depicted in an attitude of pious attentiveness. A good example is the Nativity of Christ by the Flemish artist Rogier van der Weyden, painted in the middle years of the fifteenth century—the exact date is unknown—and today in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. This is the central section of a three-paneled altarpiece, or triptych, perhaps once mounted on an altar in a chapel, perhaps displayed in an altar-like space in a home. Mary and Joseph, sharing quarters with an ox and an ass, contemplate the naked body of the Child. The stall is pictured as an ancient building in ruins, a symbol of the Jewish and pagan belief systems that Christianity was meant to supersede. The city in the background resembles neither Bethlehem nor Jerusalem but rather, with its spires, gables, and tiled roofs, a modern northern European town. The gentleman at the right, finally, wears an expensive-looking fur-lined coat and wooden clogs to protect his fine pointed shoes. He presses his hands together in reverence. This is the donor. He is not identified by an inscription or a coat of arms. But there is good reason to believe, on the basis of the painting’s whereabouts in the seventeenth century, that he is Pieter Bladelin, a man of respectable origins who rose through political acumen to a high station in the court of the Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Good, in Bruges.